Why Christians Should be Involved in Advocacy

Comments (31)
by Kate Kooyman, Office of Social Justice/CRWRC

My husband is big into fishing. I could wallpaper my house with all the pictures we have of him holding a fish. They all look the same to me, but he can point to it and tell you how many inches it was, what stretch of the river he got it, during what season, and using what fly. Shocking the information you can retain when you're motivated. Now if I can only get him to remember where his keys are.


So the old adage "If you give a man a fish..." feels like it was spun right out of our household. Except that my husband does not eat his fish for a day -- or at all. He snaps a picture of his fish and then returns it to the water. He doesn't take them home for a fish fry.


In any case, "If you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day; if you teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime" is, I think, a helpful little mantra for our Christian good works (if a bit non-inclusive in its gender language). It helps us to see that there's more we can do to address hunger than just donating our almost-expired kidney beans to the food pantry; there's more we can do than just writing a check when disaster strikes Haiti. If we're serious about poverty and hunger, it's also important that we address the skills that people need so they don't have to keep coming back to the pantry to eat our cast-offs. That's why there are so many folks who are interested in teaching urban gardening, for example, or things like GED and job skills programs. We know this to be true: people deserve the dignity of providing for themselves.


But what happens when the hungry person has all the fishing skills they could ask for -- but there's so much pollution in the pond, the fish have died? Or there's a fence around the pond and you have to have certain documents to enter? Or the pond-owner demands most of the fish be deposited on his front porch instead of going home in the fisherman's cooler? What happens when there is a system, or a structure, or an underlying reason that skills and fish aren't enough? What happens when some people are powerless and have been robbed of a voice to change it?


Christians need to get serious about advocacy. Proverbs 31:8-9 tells us, "Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.* Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy." The sad truth is, we were all created in the image of God, with an inherent dignity and voice. But sin has crept into our systems and structures and cultures and laws -- and has robbed that voice from some, while amplifying it for others.


So what do we do when Monsanto gives Haiti a big post-earthquake "gift" of their patented and pesticide-laden seeds? What do we do when seventy percent of immigrants who harvest our food don't have access to the legal channels of immigration, and are thus vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation? What do we do when our lawmakers shirk their commitment to cutting poverty in half by 2015?


I'm convinced that the Lord requires something very simple of us: "...to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8). If we are committed to this kind of life, then we must speak. The truth is, in this sin-stained world, some of us have voices that are heard, while others have voices that are silenced. I appreciate when I see faith expressed in creative ways, like buying local food and committing to pay more for a hamburger if its farmer has treated the earth with more dignity. But I am convinced that this is not enough. We must offer all we have to be used by God -- our money, our time, and our power. And our power is often our voice.


Ask yourself: what voice do you have that others may not? Can you vote? Can you call your legislator? Do you have access to learn the truth about injustice? Do you have a platform -- your blog, your church, your neighborhood, your family -- where you can be a truth teller?


Speak out for those who cannot speak.

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Contributor

Steve, is your husband into fishing? I know a woman who's big into justice, and HER husband is big into fishing..... Could there be a connection?

Contributor

Hi Karl,
You guessed it. I didn't write this article. I've now added Kate Kooyman's name and organizations to the header. Thanks for proofing me! Steve

"So what do we do when Monsanto gives Haiti a big post-earthquake "gift" of their patented and pesticide-laden seeds?"
This matter-of-fact statement may well be overstated. I think it is important to read the "other side" of the story... http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto_today/2010/seed_donation_to_haiti.asp
As I read it, there were many offers and this route was chosen by the powers that be in Haiti. It is worthwhile to present both sides, not just the political one.
Ken Prol

Ken, thanks for your comment and your attention to this detail. You're right -- this line might be overstated, or at least portray the situation to be more black-and-white than it really is. I appreciate the feedback!

Here's the best of my knowledge of this situation, in a bit more detail (and I'm not an expert on agriculture!). The good news is that the seeds that were given to Haiti were not genetically modified seeds, which the Haitian government rejected due to Haitian people's strong suspicion of those types of seeds. Also, the hybrid seeds they're sending instead are supposed to yield a larger harvest. That means more food.

The bad news is that these seeds will need to be repurchased each year. So there are some major concerns associated with these seeds: 1) Haitians will have to buy seeds year after year, and Monsanto may stand to benefit from this kind of dependence, 2) There are concerns that these hybrid seeds will require more fertilizer and pesticide use to grow well, increasing environmental and health concerns in Haiti. 3) There is a tradition of native seeds in Haiti that are saved and sold locally, and that are adapted to Haiti's unique microclimate. This gift will have a big impact on that local market (since these gifted seeds will be sold at greatly reduced prices), as well as on the sustainability of this traditional agricultural practice. Here's a helpful article about Catholic Relief Services' concern about this: http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1002286.htm.

I do appreciate your careful eye, though, and think you're right that the sentence is misleading. Things are more complex than I let on. Thanks for keeping me accountable.

Thanks for your reply Kate. I tried to keep it brief, but my expectation is that this would solve the immediate need, but that Haitains work at growing their own seed to replace the gifted seed. I see no reason for Haitains to stay in a cycle of dependancy on Monsanto or any other entity. There seems to be a wide range of opinions from different groups and individuals, but only time will tell the result of these decisions. We continue to pray for God's leading in bringing hope and healing to the people of Haiti.

I take the role of advocacy and faith to be more of a dance: advocacy takes shape (or perhaps is shaped) by the confluence of faith and our present social reality. We are all constrained by the limitations of our social setting, be it of education, socio-economic status, where we were born (and to whom), as well as our profession. All these and more give us a set of options which interact with and our informed by faith.

The corollary of this underlying diversity in our own experience would be that our ethical or political acts will be varied, even, on the face of it, contradictory. The owner of a small business in Ottawa County will almost certainly have a far different view of appropriate advocacy than say, some one who grew up in major university town like Ann Arbor.

So which policy should prevail? Why this advocacy and not another choice? On a secular level, that would be the combination of pragmatism (which policy works better, delivers more of some good) and of ideology (which policy advances our perceived long-term political interests). This is after all the stuff of politics, but is it the stuff of the church? Should it be?

Obviously here is where I am differing with Kate's perspective. I don't see how it is the Church's business to advocate for one correct answer as opposed to another, e.g. yes to local farms and no to Monsanto in Haiti. This is an honest temptation to all engaged in advocacy and committed to a Christian witness; it makes no difference if one is standing for the poor of Haiti or the weak in the mother's womb. As Reformed folk we want to create this iron links between principle and ethics; the power of righteous witness is intoxicating and motivating, no doubt. But spiritually? I think it a trap, one that ensnares us with a sort of self-regard.

A better way of thinking about advocacy would be to see it as a covenantal activity, grounded in our life together. The act of response to our neighbor, our obedience is of more consequence than the policy outcomes. Because we are in a community shaped and called by God, and not by mere social affiliation, we have the freedom to entertain even contrary politics or desired advocacy outcomes (goodness, as Ken Prol will note, we do not at all see eye-to-eye on these matters). As a community we obey, reflect, refine. We can share our witness together. And because we know Who holds the victory, we are free from the advocate/partisan trap of needing to win.

So then do we dispense with social advocacy? I don't think so. The champions of social witness can become exemplars of how we all can think about the issues. We are all in needs of models, awareness, and frankly, enthusiasm. And we all can use a few more dance lessons.

I think she is pleading to indivduals not church as a whole.I think we should be open to all schools of thought on how we address the poor and sick among us.  As long as its based on the concept of Gods love.

Bill Harris, that is a well written and thoughtful response and I agree wholeheartedly with it. Thanks for the reminder that "we can all use a few more dance lessons."

Contributor

Thanks, Bill, for your thoughtful contribution. There certainly are a variety of views within the Christian and the Reformed communities on what sorts of issues the church (as institute) ought to try to speak to. Some would say that it is imperative for Christians to advocate for the cause of justice, but that this activity should always be organized outside the church as an institution (through the Association for Public Justice or similar organizations). Others see a big role for the Church in advocacy because justice is central to the Kingdom and the Church is a Kingdom outpost.

My own sense is that the Church ought to choose its advocacy causes carefully. Both US law and good sense point in the direction of not "advocating" for particular candidates who are always a mix of good and bad character traits and issue positions. Very complex issues create some of the same dynamics. Choosing a relatively small number of relatively clear issues would enable the Church to speak for what we understand as Kingdom values and be heard more clearly. What do others think?

Should we use the church as institute as a platform for telling the truth in political discussions as Mrs. Kooyman suggests? The best wisdom seems to be to affirm:

(1) that the church as organism is called to Godly political advocacy, and
(2) that the church as institute ought to restrict its official proclamations to the gospel, not pretending to speak authoritatively in areas that are outside her realm of sovereignty and expertise.

To quote Abraham Kuper: "... the government has to judge and to decide independently. Not as an appendix to the Church [as institute], nor as its pupil... both Church and State must, each in their own sphere, obey God and serve His honor."

For example, the call to pursue justice and mercy in gratitude for God's justice and mercy is found in scripture, is part of the gospel, and is therefore something the church should proclaim. Whether using non-hybrid seeds is the best way to engage in this pursuit is outside of the institutional church's area of expertise. Drawing these distinctions is not always easy, but the difficultly of doing so shouldn't lead us to give up and encourage the institutional church to say whatever seems good.

The church as institution is not called broadly to proclaim the truth (but the church as organism is). Rather, the church as institution is called narrowly to proclaim the truth of the gospel.

 

 Thanks to everyone for the rich discussion. I found it very educational. So, I guess perhaps my question is this: what examples can we share with each other of how we've used our voice as Christians to be truth tellers and stand for justice? Perhaps the church as institution is not called (although I'm not saying I necessarily agree with that, but I'll assume that for this post) .. but as as organism...and as individual Christians I sense we agree. So what example can we give each other and others of how we have been using our voices? What ideas can we offer the church for meaningful ways to speak up and out?

One thing I think is the importance of convening and modeling healthy civic engagement on hot topics in your community. For me, I've been trying to convene a community discussion around youth at risk. Our community has (unfortunately) a plethora of kids at risk, and it's just a small community. The official response has been a law and order response... no community services for help to address the risk, but arrest and incarceration. I'd like to engage this topic with community leaders in a HEALTHY way. I think that Christians as a community should be able to lead in healthy conversations around hot topics. I think this is a gift we can give to the community at large. Do you think that's true? 

Here's another example of people getting together and acting on justice. This is the group Christians Ending Poverty that has a strong representation from Crossroads CRC in San Marcos. A wonderful example and inspiration to what we can do as ORGANIZED Christians to address injustice. Check out this link:

http://www.christiansendingpoverty.org/

Contributor

ibemeubu's invitation to share stories is interesting because it makes me realise I know of so few from first hand experience.  That again makes me wonder, as I've wondered so often before, whether the institute/organism distinction has too often served us as a reason to avoid advocacy altogether. 

Anyhow, I do recall a time when members of my congregation got involved in trying to advocate to have the city retain local fire stations near the city center.   We held a press conference in the Church, and we appeared before the city's planning commission.   The congregation had not formally taken any position, and we did not pretend we were speaking for our congregation, but we did make it clear that our concerns related to our concern for our community/ parish.  That was a satisfying experience and to this day (30+ years later) some of those local fire stations remain.

I think it's the church's responsibility to advocate for rational and loving and informed social discourse on tough issues. And to model that in the way we deal with the tough issues internally!   I think the church (and I mean the institutional church as well as the church as organism) needs to help shape social justice conversations by showing how to be passionate and prophetic while being reasonable and respectful.  I think the church needs to press for high quality debate in the neighborhood, in the media, in the cofffee room, and in the council room. 

Grand Rapids is in the roll-out period of a large initiative to increase the percent of high school kids who graduate.  It's privately funded, and it's wholistic, and it's long term.   The public school system, businesses, neighborhood organizations, and families and churches will be engaged.    Should congregations engage formally?  I guess that is debatable, but I lean toward answering Yes.   It's a justice issue, and it's sure to get political if it's got any validity at all, but it's very urgent, and I think bi-partisan.  So I tend to think it's an example of a place to make an "exception".   

What do others think? 

Contributor

To me this would be a good example of something where congregations can and should get directly involved, as opposed to encouraging their members to be involved.  Increasing high school graduation rates is an obvious good.  Who is against it?  There are other situations where the demands of Biblical justice are so clear and compelling that the church must speak.  My two cents,

 Dear Moderator Steve,

You said, “Increasing high school graduation rates is an obvious good.  Who is against it?”

It’s not who can be against it that is the issue. The question that trips us up in the discussion is the HOW?

Well meaning Christians, united to address an issue, can vary widely and wildly in the HOW. So to you what may be an easy assumption… who can be against improving high school graduation rates? For others can be seen as a issue that has political under and over tones…will that mean increased funding out of tax dollars? Will that let the government into private, Christian schools? Will the government require a nation-wide “one curriculum” to be foisted on all schools? What will be the role of the federal government vs. the local school board; will this be a threat to local control of education? Yeah, lots of differing ideas and concerns out there when we start looking at the HOW.

However, I’d love to see more LOCAL CHURCHes  jump in. But  it’s not  hearing the voice of “the church” I’m looking for. I feel a need and longing for the “comfort” of the church, for the church to create safe spaces for Christians to engage their faith and their daily life…struggling with each other and their understanding of Christ’s call on their life and their action in the world. EVEN when we differ on the how.

By the way, yesterday I met with my local representative to  Congress (little towns have an advantage..we were at the same lunch counter together, and he’s running for re-election). So I took that moment to tell him my dreams for improved school experience to address youth at risk, and that drop-out rate issue.  Yeah, not earth shattering, but you know what? I talked to the guy, at least that’s something. Sometimes just saying something out loud and having someone listen and/or ask questions can help you clarify your own thinking.

So if I can do that at a lunch counter in my small town, I wonder what it would be like to be able to do it in the safety of my own church with brothers and sisters as we examine the issues and struggle out possible solutions?

What is politcal about the HOW?  Nobody is forcing you to contribute just to try to find a solution for various social problems.

 

Hi Kelib,

Thanks for responding to the post!

What I meant about the HOW sometimes being a political issue is that it can happen that two (or more) people who agree on the need for action related to a problem may totally disagree on the KIND of action.  For example person A may think that the way forward on youth at risk is to provide lots of city and county funding for programs aimed at the youth and their families to reconnect them to being healthy citizens—restorative justice,  Person B may think the way forward is to fund a robust crime stopping program and ramp up the police force to remove troubled teens from the community,  Person C may think that there’s no good government/funding solution and that the Church or  local sports groups , or the local 4-H should work harder at growing healthy kids, and parents should just do a better job parenting.  I think that when we are entertaining solutions that involve our communities’ systems and structures that that becomes a political question as well as a personal response. Political in this sense then is referring to being related to (local in this case) government. It can also be understood as party politics at times because sometimes our political framework corresponds with the way we see that solutions should move forward, but I wasn’t talking about party politics here.

No one is forcing me to respond to social issues;  that is for sure! I just happen to believe that as a disciple of Jesus that I am called to be in the world and working toward solutions to problems and suffering I see.

But back to my idea in the original post. That was  the dream that the church could provide the “table” for persons A,B, and C and many others to come together and to look for solutions, that it would be great to be able to sit in safety with my brothers and sisters in my church community and talk about this kind of thing even if we differ in our opinions about how. We would grow in our understanding of each other and maybe come up with some innovative response to the issue we’re talking about because we’re together.

I suppose we could also use your point and say “no one is forcing the church to respond to social issues”. That is also an exciting topic.

For me though, I’m less interested in the lofty theological discussion, as important as they are, and more interested in the actual action pieces. For those of us Christians who choose, and are not forced, to respond to social issues, what are we doing that’s exciting? And how is that affecting our church or vice versa?

My point was you don't have to respond, not the church. If we can't agree here with our Christian brothers what is going to be different at your table? Would you be willing to accept idea's that you don't agree with because person A,B and C are not going to agree without somebody changing their veiw?

 

This is an invitation to kelvin—Please stay!  If this site is just for people who want to stay on the surface of the challenge to be disciples of, and community in Christ then it may as well be a news site.

I admire kelvin for (his or her) willingness to be vulnerable with a community of faceless posters. My own experience has been that it takes a brave soul to lead others by example to express their struggles, frustrations, pain.

How others react to our vulnerability opens the door or closes it. If the door is opened, other folks usually start sharing their struggles, because none of us is without pain. What better place to bring our confusion and hurts than to the feet of Jesus and our community of fellow believers who, when they are willing, embrace us and lift us up. I have been blessed (and surprised!) more often than not in seeing those doors open WIDE within various Christian small groups and churches I have been a part of, and beautiful community has been built.

I thank kelvin too because (he or she) points us to the importance of KNOWING one another. One of the most important things for humans is to know and BE KNOWN. All praise and thanksgiving to the God who knows us completely! Enriching further is when our community knows us and embraces us with our vulnerabilities and our strengths, our rough edges and smooth, ministers to us and invites us to minister to each other and beyond.

It is also in this kind of healthy community that we may differ at times and yet fully love one another. Yeah, kelvin, I hope you stay to help build this community.

oops! I mean kelib, I have calvinized you, sorry! 

I will always be a Calvinist. I like doctrinal expressions. Thanks Ibemebu   I always take peoples words to heart. Thanks

A lot of comments about how do we do this, what should we do, the church must or should......., A very interesting question I read a while ago was, How come you Christians never show up if you are not in control, this may tie in with Kuiper's writing mentioned above about church and state being separated, with which i agree 100%. BUT, we should be in the business of the state, of inner city youth work, of shelters for the homeless etc., we are called to be the salt of the earth, does this saying imply that too much salt is not good?

Wow, what a discussion. I want to pick up on what others have said. For me, of course Christians should be involved in advocacy. The danger comes when the Gospel message becomes defined with very specific advocacy issues. A great example is a current news item on the denominations main webpage - the fact that representatives of the CRC are down at a conference in Florida protesting a grocery store over the price of tomatoes. It is very dangerous when it looks like in order to follow Jesus one must take a particular view on fair compensation and tomato prices. To move from a concept like Justice to a complex particular issue like that raises the red flag associated with Christians and advocacy. I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with the focus of my denomination when our leadership does things like that.

 

John VanLeeuwen... do you really believe that Christians never show up if they are not in control? I think that proposition is indefensible. I believe that Christians (and organizations like our denomination) advertise their showing up when they are 'in control' to some degree, but Christians all over the world are integrated into the fabric of society - 'showing up' every day doing all sorts of things without making a big deal about it . Whoever originally asked that question has a rather skewed perspective.

 

John

John, 

  You are right this is about perspecitives. I would not be so quick to judge these efforts when they orginate out a God driven desire in hearts of those participating. I know you mean well in your caution about political agenda's  being the driving factor.

   John,  I know that is not true in my case and others I  have talked too. The Christians that you refer too believe in all kinds of public involvment because of God leads them. You could not do this stuff of community involvement for multiple issue's with a attitude of I hope this makes some Christians angry. It is kind of cart before the horse thing.

Ken

Ken, I appreciate you response. However, Ken, I don't understand what you're saying. Could you restate it?

Hi John,  

   I am a little abstract at times, forgive me because I mean well. What I was trying to say some Christians look at the advocacy of the type your concerned about, in different context because of the way they feel driven by God. Other people have a completely different approach. We have to be open minded to varies ways to represent Jesus.Ken

Ken, I agree. That is why I grow very uncomfortable when, for example, the CRC newsroom indicates that Christians ought to believe Publix supermarket in Florida needs to pay a couple more cents / pound of tomatos. Our denomination's representatives are down there with the WCRC protesting about this and it is being reported on our denomination's home page.  Advocacy is great, but we need to be very, very care identifying the gospel with very complex, specific situations.  Especially ones that we likely do not understanding anywhere close to fully.

John,

  What dangers do you see with this type of involvement?

Ken

The danger, as I said above, is that the Gospel becomes identified with a very specific issue - like the price of tomatos paid by a Florida grocery store. It may be the just thing for the store to pay 1 or 2 cents more per pound. However, it may not be. They may buy such a volume of tomatoes that 1 or 2 cents would mean they lose enough money that they have to cut somewhere else - like someone's job who is struggling to get buy, or not give someone a small raise they need for their kids, or reduce health benefits, or who knows what. I don't think grocery stores usually make a huge margin on their produce.  I truly don't know what the right thing to do is in this case, I don't know the facts. It is dangerous when Christians identify proclaiming the Gospel with something like this protest.

I am worried that our denomination's leadership is heading in this direction - note that as I write 2 of the headline stories on the home page focus on this issue.  Given the focus on WCRC and the attention our leadership pays to it, I see more and more of this in our future.

John,

  Got it John. I see things a little different. I do appreciate your comments on not knowing the facts. We all are guilty of that at times.  If leadership feels this way maybe there is a good Biblical reason and not because they have some social agenda.  John , WCRC has a lot of smart people too and I am sure they entertain other methods  to help people in working poverty. They might think this is the most cost effective way to help.

Ken

Below is a link to another post on the Network about churches being involved in advocacy.  In it James Dekker writes that speaking up about unjust public policy could possibly be a sign of healthy church.  I agree with Jim.  Where the Spirit of God is at work unjust public policy will not be ignored.    

http://network.crcna.org/content/pastors/healthy-congregations-head-outwards

 

 

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